I Served the King of England – Bohumil Hrabal (Book and DVD)

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 Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

I Served the King of England was the Claire’s choice for Savidge Reads’ and Kimbofo’s book group, but we all agreed that it wasn’t anything special. We were surprised that it featured on the Guardian’s 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read list, as we felt that it failed to provide anything particularly special or unique.

The book follows the life of Ditie, a short man with big ambitions. Beginning in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, we follow his career as makes his fortune working in hotels. His observations are both bizarre and mildly amusing, but I failed to see the point of them. Ditie’s life is then changed drastically when the communists come to power. I won’t spoil the last part of the book for you, but you can imagine that life during WWII will not be as light and amusing as the first half of the book. The weirdness continues, but it is shadowed with a darker, more threatening atmosphere.

The problem with the book was that it failed to engage me. I was laughing at it, rather than with it and scenes which should have been shocking, failed to affect me. The book just passed me by, without letting me become emotionally involved.  

The ending annoyed me a lot. It came over as very preachy, over explaining the moral message that the author hoped to teach us in writing the book. It was the only time that the book had managed to evoke an emotion in me and I felt patronised and used.

Confused at why this book was so highly regarded I did a little bit of research and discovered that the film had been well received, so decided to order a copy.

The film turned out to be a lot better than the book. The order of everything was changed, so that the shocking war scenes were placed next to the light humour of life in the hotel. This meant that the power of each scene was enhanced. I immediately saw what the author had been trying the achieve, but also why he had failed. Some of the story line was changed (no baby + different ending, for example), but I thought these were all improvements to the story. I would place this in my top 50 films of all time (the book won’t get close!)

I highly recommend the DVD to anyone who likes to watch foreign language films., but the book is nothing special.

Book: stars3h

DVD: stars4h

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  1. Rachel says:

    Totally agree Jackie. I felt it had no heart, and was really surprised that it was as famous as it is. It really didn’t grip me at all. But – it’s always nice to read something different!

    1. Jackie says:

      Rachel, I enjoy reading different things too! It is a shame as the film has a real heart – perhaps it was lost in the translation?

  2. Sandy says:

    I’ve not seen the movie or read the book, but I have heard wonderful things about the movie in EW and from my sister. In fact, when I saw that you and Simon reading the book, I figured it would be just as wonderful, and thought I might do a book/movie combo. Guess I’ll just stick with the movie!

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I recommend you watch the DVD as I’m sure you’ll love it – especially with your WWII passion.

  3. Violet says:

    One of the rare cases where the film is better than the book I see. Looks like the director or the script writer recognized the flaws and modified them accordingly.

    Is there any significance to the cover? It looks odd.

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, Yes, a rare example of where the film is better than the book.

      The cover is due to the fact that the central character has a weird fascination with putting flowers on naked women!

    2. Claire says:

      There is definite significance to the cover!

      Glad to hear that the DVD is worth checking out, Jackie; I must track it down.

      1. Jackie says:

        Claire, I am sure you will enjoy the DVD! I hope that you manage to find a copy.

  4. Steph says:

    I always think it’s interesting when movies wind up better than the books they’re based on. I actually kind of felt this way about Cold Comfort Farm, but that might have been because by the time I watched the film I had a better appreciation for what the book was trying to do… Normally it bothers me when things are changed between books and films, but in this case it sounds like it was a good idea! Not sure if I’ll ever read the book. Based on all of your responses, it isn’t really up there.

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I can’t think of any other films that are better than the book at the moment, but I recommend you find the DVD, as I am sure you’ll enjoy watching it.

      I haven’t seen or read Cold Comfort Farm – perhaps that is one for next year!

  5. She says:

    Ooo sorry the book wasn’t all that great– it has a neat cover though. I love the color of purple they chose! lol.

    1. Jackie says:

      She, It is very pretty!

  6. Thanks for the review. I’ve seen people talk about this on librarything, but I think I won’t waste mt time. May check my library for the movie, though!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jen, I hadn’t heard any mention of this book before Claire chose it – I’d be interested to see the librarything discussion – I’ll go and take a look!

  7. Belle says:

    It’s interesting that the movie was so good and the book wasn’t very good at all. Very unusual. I wonder what elements of the book caught the filmmaker’s eye to begin with?

    1. Jackie says:

      Belle, It is very unusual. It is a Czech film, so I am sure that this is one of the most important books from that country. Perharps a lot of the impact is lost in translation, but the film makers revive the major points.

  8. Aarti says:

    How interesting that you thought the movie better than the book! I’ve heard about this book only recently, but thought it had an interesting premise. Not sure if I’ll check it out now, but maybe I’ll at least netflix the movie :-)

  9. Jackie says:

    Aarti, Yes – make sure you watch it – it is very good!

  10. Sarah says:

    During the first part of this review I was determined to tell you to watch the movie, as it is one that I LOVE. :) I’m so glad you did. Now I’m really curious to read the book (didn’t know there was one). I have to echo the opinion of so many others – what a great cover! It will be interesting to see what the book is like after having seen the movie first, not something I typically do.

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